I never learned about Japanese-American internment camps in the United States when I was a child, so it has been shocking for me, as an adult, to read about this dark period in the recent past of the United States. It is even more shocking to read that it took place not far from my current backyard.
During World War II, people of Japanese descent who had been born and raised in the United States were put in camps, which were essentially prisons, because of their heritage and the color of their skin.
Julie Otsuka writes about this embarrassing chapter of the history of our country in two gripping and eye-opening novels, “When the Emperor Was Divine” and “Buddha in the Attic.”
In her debut novel, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” Otsuka portrays the life of a family that is taken by long train ride to a dusty, hot, uncomfortable camp in the desert of the American West.
The horrifying reality for Japanese Americans during World War II was that no one trusted them. People whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan for a better life found themselves ostracized by their fellow Americans—people they had grown up with. Men, women, and children born in this country were put in these “camps” because of fear.
“Buddha In the Attic” paints a portrait of Japanese mail-order brides brought to the United States in the early twentieth century to marry Japanese men who were supposed to make their dreams come true. These men sent for women, ages 10 and up, to come live with them to be their wives, to make families, and to sometimes be no more than legal slaves.
Mothers sent their daughters to this country with the hope that they would find a better life—free from the hard physical labor and malnourishment from which they themselves had suffered—only to find that the girls were sent to fates not much better than their own.
As the years went on, conditions improved. The children of these mail-order brides grew up learning English. They got an education. They were able to read and write. This was the reason these women sacrificed to come to this country. Maybe they were not able to better themselves, but they were able to make things better for their progeny.
Then came the bombing of Pearl Harbor. People who had been the friends of these Japanese Americans became afraid. Their neighbors, grocers, customers, and employers were all afraid. That was when the men started to disappear. They were taken in the night. Eventually, fear spread beyond just the men. After all, who knew what secrets the Japanese women and children were hiding?
That is when all the Japanese, regardless of whether they were born in the United States, were taken to the internment camps in the Rocky Mountain West, where they could be “safe.” That is what the government told the American people. Children missed their playmates. Employers missed their employees. Grocers missed their customers. People missed their friends, their neighbors, their community members, and their church fellows.
These two books opened my eyes to the problems that arise when people are afraid. We can be a devastating people. We can be an intolerant people. We can even be a cruel people.
After reading these beautiful novels, which are based on true stories as told to Julie Otsuka, my hope is that we can be a good people. These books talk about an inexcusable part of our American past. I hope it is never part of our future.